Strength & Speed Training for Canoeists

People canoeing on lake

Olympic flat-water canoeing requires a combination of strength, power, speed, endurance and balance. According to Australia's "Flatwater Racing Manual," canoeing is primarily an endurance sport. Nevertheless, maximal strength and speed are essential components of becoming a successful paddler. In the book "The Barton Mold," about two-time Olympic Gold Medalist kayaker Greg Barton, William Endicott writes that even though Olympic Canoe/Kayak is largely an endurance sport, Barton would maintain his strength and speed training throughout the year.

Developing Speed

Speed training in a canoe consists of short bursts of high-intensity efforts, anywhere up to 70 seconds in duration. During this time, energy is provided anaerobically, or without the use of oxygen. Instead, the body receives energy through the chemicals ATP and lactic acid. Training in this zone of up to 70 seconds will allow the paddler to achieve maximal intensities repeatedly. Barton recommends workouts such as 250-meter sprints with full rest in between to achieve maximal speed gains. Further, the use of resistance, such as tying a rope around the boat or dragging a bucket, can help develop maximal speed once the resistance is removed.

Developing Strength

Barton believes that weight routines should isolate certain muscles and place additional stress beyond that which can be produced through paddling. Because canoeing is primarily an endurance sport, lifting weights allows the paddler to simply grow the muscles. Barton classifies four types of muscle groups for paddling: the back and latissimus muscles; the chest, shoulders and tricep muscles; the biceps and forearm muscles; and the lower torso and abdominal muscles. Back and latissimus lifts include lat pull-downs, rows and deadlifts. Chest, shoulder and tricep lifts include bench presses, shoulder raises and tricep extensions. Bicep and forearm lifts include bicep curls and preacher curls. The lower torso and abdomen lifts include crunches, sit-ups and leg raises.

Weekly Training Programs

Australia Canoeing recommends 3 to 4 on-water training sessions per week for beginners and youth paddlers. However, for experienced paddlers, the number of sessions can be increased up to 10 to 20 total sessions per week, including weight lifting sessions. When Barton was training for speed and strength during his Olympic Gold Medal year, he had 6 speed-focused sessions per week, 3 speed-endurance sessions, and 4 sessions focused on technique and endurance. Further, Barton would train in the gym between 2 and 5 times per week.

Planning the Year

Most canoeists use some form of periodization in their yearly training program. Periodization, developed by exercise scientist Tudor Bompa, refers to the systematic variation in volume and intensity to achieve optimal performance gains. Both Bompa and Barton recommend decreasing volume of the training program while increasing intensity as peak competition draws near. Further, gym sessions should be reduced to around twice per week about one month prior to competition, and cut out completely the week before. This will allow the body to be fully rested and recovered prior to the most important events of the year.

Measuring Improvement

In addition to planning the year effectively and training intensively, Australia Canoeing asserts that evaluating performance and measuring improvement is essential, especially for younger paddlers. All canoeists should set yearly training and performance goals, and then create a list of strategies for accomplishing them. This allows canoeists to check their progress throughout the year and adjust goals accordingly. Endicott reports that Barton was a rigorous note-taker and kept an expansive record of his workouts so he could evaluate his performance throughout the year.